How the case of ‘Heeb Media’ paved the way for the Redskins trademark decision

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has canceled the Washington Redskins' trademark. Federal trademark law does not permit registration of trademarks that "may disparage" individuals or groups. Here's a look at the Redskins' logo and team imagery throughout the years. (Tom LeGro and Natalie Jennings/The Washington Post)

While Wednesday’s decision canceling the trademark of the Washington Redskins appeared to take many by surprise, there was one big reason to see it coming: a case in 2008 called “In re Heeb Media, LLC.” The circumstances — and the arguments — were strikingly similar in important ways to the Redskins case.

Heeb Media was a company that was trying to market a line of athletic clothing called “HEEB.” A vocal segment of the Jewish community opposed it on the grounds that the term “heeb” was disparaging to Jews.

They cited the section of the trademark law that allows for rejection or cancellation of a trademark that “consists of or comprises immoral or scandalous matter; or matter which may disparage … persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols, or bring them into contempt, or disrepute.”

Like the Redskins, which argues it has the best of intentions and that its name in the context of football is a tribute to Native Americans, Heeb Media said it meant no harm. In the context of athletic apparel, the name was “empowering” to Jews, not degrading.

Heeb produced a number of Jews and Jewish organizations who said they had no objection to the trademark to counter Jewish groups that had organized vocal opposition.

Likewise, according to Wednesday’s opinion, the Redskins offered up as evidence letters and statements from tribal leaders dating back to the 1990s in support of its cause. (Said one tribal leader: “The Washington Redskins is a team I admire …Thank you for this opportunity to express my views.”)

Both the Redskins and the sponsors of HEEB sought refuge in dictionaries — in definitions of “heeb” and “redskin” without negative connotations — as evidence that the terms were indeed not negative. Both cases became in considerable measure a battle of competing lexographers.

Heeb Media lost. The Trademark Trial and Appeal Board said there were enough Jews, particularly older Jews, who found it distasteful to form  “a substantial composite” of the Jewish population. That was enough.

The Redskins lost, too. The same judge, Karen Kuhlke, wrote both opinions.

Citing the HEEB case, here’s what the board said:

[The Redskins have] introduced evidence that some in the Native American community do not find the term “Redskin” disparaging when it is used in connection with professional football. While this may reveal differing opinions within the community, it does not negate the opinions of those who find it disparaging.

The ultimate decision is based on whether the evidence shows that a substantial composite of the Native American population found the term ‘Redskins’ to be disparaging. Once a substantial composite has been found, the mere existence of differing opinions cannot change the conclusion.

Before the HEEB case came the first decision by the trademark board in 1999 cancelling the Redskins mark, brought by and named for Suzan Shown Harjo, but reversed on appeal for technical reasons.

The ruling is subject to appeal and does not mean the team must stop using the name. It just withdraws the imprimatur of the government and could possibly make it harder to keep others from using it.

And it looks bad.

Fred Barbash, the editor of Morning Mix, is a former National Editor and London Bureau Chief for the Washington Post.

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